I was reminded of that piece when this article came across my feed describing how UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund has developed a tracker that allows kids to feed other children when they reach certain step goals.
I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.
North American kids — largely affluent, well fed, and probably mostly white — are being told use this tracker and you will feed the poor somewhere else.
You can’t escape the irony here; the colonialist, patriarchally coated irony of having privileged kids walking their walk to good works.
Article author Angela Lashbrooks says this about the idea: A punitive or even rewards-based system to encourage young people to move more won’t be effective in the mid or long term, and could cause or worsen obsessive thoughts and behaviors in some kids.
That’s because there isn’t a lot of good evidence showing trackers work with kids and teens:
One 2019 study found that teenage subjects actually became less likely to engage in moderate or vigorous physical activity after five weeks of wearing a Fitbit. It suggested that the tracker appeared to weaken the inherent motivation and self-determination needed to compel kids to be active. Another study, from 2017, saw similar results: After an initial surge in interest in exercise spanning a few weeks, the kids mostly stopped engaging with the trackers and actively resisted them, claiming that they were inaccurate and therefore not trustworthy.
While our kids on this continent are mostly sedentary and we should be concerned with the amount of screen time they engage in, getting kids to wear trackers and get their fitness on by appealing to an altruistic goal is problematic.
Kids follow what they see. Kids also know when they are being gamed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up on Christmas morning and discover a tracker under the tree. Given all the negative messages we send out about size and what fitness looks like, I can see the thought processes now:
Parental units gave me a tracker! Trackers are used by people who want to lose weight. Parents must think I need to lose weight. Parents must think I am fat. Fat people are ugly. Parents must think I am ugly. Parents won’t love me if I’m fat. Parents won’t love me anymore if I don’t lose weight. …
Unless a tracker is something the child has spontaneously on their own expressed an interest in, there are better ways to get your kid engaged in fitness than planting this kind of non-gift under the tree.
If you want to focus on a healthier, more active lifestyle, buy swim passes for everyone. Or sign them up for that bike repair workshop so they can fix their bikes on their own. Or plot walking routes in your community and track the steps as a world wide adventure.
If social action is on your list of things, then talk as a family about supporting community agencies who help vulnerable kids and families throughout the year and not just in holiday season. This article offers some great insights into why giving should be a daily thing and not a holiday one-off.
Gifts that focus on self-improvement aren’t really gifts in my opinion. They are projections of your own desires. How about you? What do you think would be more appropriate for gift giving?
MarthaFitat55 is not a fan of self-improvement gifts for any occasion. She gets her fit on through walking, swimming, yoga and powerlifting. But not all at once.
I am a middle school teacher, and therefore spend my days surrounded by sweet, well-intentioned, and deeply ignorant little humans. I love my students, and I am often amazed at their unique perspectives, their senses of humor, and their boundless energy. I am also often amazed at how deeply entrenched in the public zeitgeist they are already. Their mental sponges have soaked up popular opinions without skepticism or discernment. As a result, they can be a challenging combination of opinionated and without practical experience. Their assumptions around personal fitness, nutrition, and body size are especially illustrative of this reality.
I choose to teach with a very open style. I believe that the best learning comes about when we share stories and make personal connections with the material, and so I freely share much of my life with my students. Beyond being my philosophy of education, it is also just very authentic for me to be open and transparent. I have never been very good at masking my emotions or filtering my responses.
In any case, this penchant for sharing myself means that it is not uncommon for me to mention my workouts with a class—maybe I’m discussing Newton’s laws and drawing an example from a recent lifting session at the gym. And usually, after the first incredulous question, “You lift weights?” the immediate follow-up question will be, “oh yeah, how much do you bench?”
And I get stumped. I imagine my more skeptical students taking the inevitable pause as proof that I’m deceiving them about my weightlifting (I clearly do not fit their mental image of someone who strength trains regularly). But what I am actually stopped by is how overwhelmingly difficult it is to retrace their misconceptions back far enough to answer their question. Where do I begin?
Firstly, I want to explain, it takes years of lifting to build any sort of visible muscle for most of us, and how visible it is is highly dependent on how much body fat you have. And, as a cis-female, I don’t have the necessary hormones to encourage huge muscle growth, even with years in the gym.
Secondly, you can lift for strength without significantly increasing the size of your muscles.
Thirdly, you can lift for strength or muscle growth without ever maxing out your lifts or learning what your “one rep maxes” are.
Fourthly, barbell bench pressing is not the best exercise if your goals are functional strength of the pectoral and supporting muscles of the chest, shoulders and back—dumbbells will actually require further stabilizing and therefore may be a better exercise for overall fitness.
Fifthly, strength athletes who are not powerlifters aim for balanced training, which means they don’t usually specialize in a few moves like the bench press (unless they’re specifically training for a powerlifting meet).
And finally and far most-importantly, there is value in strength training even if you cannot lift an impressive amount of weight at any given time, since the point is working at the edge of your limits, wherever they may be. The skill and discipline of lifting is the point of the work, and our goals are always a moving target. So what you lift this week doesn’t matter, the real strength comes from lifting more, with better quality, consistently, over time.
Usually, I skip to the end of this diatribe in class, but I can feel my students tuning me out, hearing it as an excuse to not divulge what they assume will be an unimpressive number. I know that I am leaving the conversation without impressing them, without changing their minds, and without furthering their understanding of the nature of weightlifting as a lifelong endeavor.
I get a similar look from my students when we talk about running. Although there is the practical difference that most of them have, at least, done some running. But again, they have the mindset that speed is what matters and seem completely focused on the goal of being “faster than” rather than any interest in the intrinsic value of running for its own sake.
I try to encourage more open-minded appreciation for the achievement of doing the running, even if it isn’t fast or far, by sharing that I am slow and that it is a challenge for me. I also talk about how I just don’t think I’m a natural runner, but I enjoy it anyway, and I like that I’m slowly improving, even if my current reality isn’t impressive. I want to impress upon them the consistency, the effort, and my willingness to push through the discomfort. But I don’t know how to help them switch their mindsets away from prioritizing being better than others in order for the effort to be worthwhile.
In fact, at this age, asking them what they enjoy doing is synonymous with asking them what they are good at. They enjoy most what they find easy to do, and what they receive the most positive support and praise for. If you ask a kid why they don’t like doing something, they will likely tell you because it is hard. This is a deeply held and completely natural response, and yet I find it frustrating both as a teacher and as a fitness enthusiast trying to spread my love of an active lifestyle. How do we teach kids to be open to the process, not just the destination?
I’m not sure how to convince a student that a physical activity is worthwhile, even if the numbers are not impressive. But, I am certain that however we do it, it needs to begin before I meet them in middle school. By the age of 12, most kids are ready to judge an effort based on the final score.
And this is a problematic point of view, if we want to raise kids into adults who can enjoy active, healthy lives. Not only will they be terribly limited in their own activities if they only enjoy them when they are “good” at them, but it constrains their perceptions of other people. Exercise is worthwhile and healthful for everybody and every body. Old, young, fat, thin, strong, weak, healthy, sick, we all benefit from being physically active. No population hasn’t been shown to be able to improve with regular physical activity. Even people in their eighties, lifting weights seated in a chair, have improved muscle strength, bone density, and prevented falls, when following a consistent program. But you won’t become that old person lifting weights if you think that you shouldn’t bother because you’re not any good at it.
And so I try to model doing the work and enjoying it, even though there’s plenty room for growth.
If we fail to teach them otherwise, what happens to these kids as they grow up and learn that it is more complicated than they assumed? What happens when their bodies prove to be imperfect, messy, complicated things that reflect all sorts of life experiences, genetic predispositions, and random chance? Will they learn to be more forgiving, more open-minded about success, and more tolerant of diversity? Or will they grow up to be forever dissatisfied, or filled with self-loathing at their seeming failures, or give up before they ever really try because it wasn’t as easy as it “should” be? I hope not. I hope I can help them find the joy in the everyday, in the journey and the process.
What do you do to ensure that you are teaching a love of movement to the next generation? How do you measure success?
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found asking kids hard questions, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
I’m not a horror fan at all. The blood and gore just gross me out, even if they’re comically unrealistic. But the worst part for me (which I know is the best part for others)is the surprise twists, especially at the end. I get confused, distracted, scared if it’s scary, and really grossed out to the point of nightmares sometimes. And this includes experiences even after the age of 10. So I don’t watch them.
We know to steel ourselves for surprise twists at the end of movies. But who prepares themself for an out-of-the-blue and contrary-to-the-plot twist in an article on the connections between physical activity and health in kids? Not me, and probably not you.
Professor Bell explains: “This suggests that it’s never too late to benefit from physical activity, but also that we need to remove barriers that make activity hard to maintain. Keeping it up is key. This includes making weight loss via diet a priority, since higher weight is itself a barrier to moving.”
A group about 1800 girls and boys born around 1991-92 were studied on three different occasions from 2003 to 2008. The researchers were looking for connections between levels of physical activity and biological markers of their overall metabolic health (e.g. cholesterol types, triglycerides, etc.– 230 in total). What they found was this:
Better metabolic health was associated with recent moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, regardless of previous activity patterns (this is a bit more complex, but basically correct).
Worse metabolic health was associated with more sedentary activity patterns.
The correlation between moderate-to-vigorous activity and metabolic health wasn’t weaker for subgroups with higher body fat (which could mean those who have a history of less physical activity, or also those with higher BMI).
They conclude here:
Our results support associations of physical activity with metabolic traits that are small in magnitude and more robust for higher MVPA [moderate to vigorous physical activity] than lower sedentary time. Activity fluctuates over time, but associations of current activity with most metabolic traits do not differ by previous activity. This suggests that the metabolic effects of physical activity, if causal, depend on most recent engagement.
There’s nothing here about losing weight as a causal factor or salient feature in their analysis. So why did the main author say that in the article? I decided to dig a little deeper, which means going to the original full article. I’m doing it, so you don’t have to– it’s part of the service we provide at Fit is a Feminist Issue.
Here’s what’s going on: in their discussion of where their study fits in the literature on metabolic health, physical activity, body weight, and risks for e.g. type 2 diabetes in youth, they say this:
much of the association of higher activity with lower subsequent adiposity is driven by reverse causation in this data… [there appears to be] a lowering effect of total activity on fat mass and blood pressure… The standardised effect size was 6 times larger in the reverse direction, however—from fat mass to inactivity—suggesting that adiposity affects activity levels more than activity levels affect adiposity.
Effect sizes matter a great deal for public health messaging since the existence of an association, or indeed a causal effect, does not alone describe its importance. Future work should compare magnitudes of effect size between common risk factors as the rate of discovery and the need to prioritise limited public health resources both increase.
The researchers say their results (and literature) support the idea that (in adolescents), body weight affects physical activity levels up to 6 times as much as activity level affects body weight. This part is no surprise, as loads of studies support the view that exercise doesn’t result in much of any weight loss.
Here’s a surprise, though (and this one isn’t scary, so it’s okay to keep reading): saying that body weight influences physical activity (that is, kids with higher body weights tend to be less active) means to the researchers that we need to work on our public health messaging, as this is very important.
YES! Of course we need to work on this. Movement at every size and shape and ability (and age, too, of course) helps us in just about every way.
But then (now the scary part is coming, be warned), the main researcher, Joshua Bell (not the violinist, I assume) has to go and say that, because higher weights are a barrier to increased physical activity, that kids should “make weight loss via diet a priority.”
Why no? Because 1) no one knows how to bring about and maintain weight loss via diet in kids (or anyone else); 2) we do know how to remove barriers to increased physical activity for kids with higher body weights. How do we do this?
attack fat shaming and weight stigmatization of kids everywhere we find it;
create opportunities for fun, non-competitive, easy-to-do movement for kids, done at their own pace and for reasonable time lengths, with no measuring, and lots of assistance and support;
work on ways to incorporate those conditions for movement into the everyday lives of kids and the people around them;
never use the word diet again around them (or anyone, for that matter).
This kind of public health messaging and programming is something we can all agree to. And that’s no surprise.